1997– The year of Titanic, Men in Black, Tomorrow Never Dies, Air Force One, The Fifth Element, The Full Monty, Perfect Blue, Face Off, L.A. Confidential, The Mirror, The Game, Lost Highway, Princess Mononoke, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Chasing Amy, Hercules, Mimic, Austin Powers, Contact, Spawn, Event Horizon, Gattaca, Boogie Nights, and Good Will Hunting. But out of all of the films that year, one was most overlooked- The Relic.
Based off the first in a series of books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, The Relic is often described as Alien meets Jurassic Park in New York (which is funny, as the movie touted the effects of Alien and Jurassic park). It’s an odd series of books that has spanned from 1995 to 2016 with the latest novel being The Obsidian Chamber. The Relic unfortunately wasn’t successful enough to warrant a film series, as both the ending disallows sequel potential, and the film only grossed over $30 million against its $60 million budget, despite opening in first place. That’s not such a bad thing though, considering how weird the book series got and considering what we demand of sequels.
The Relic as a franchise might’ve deviated highly from the books, but what about the movie itself? Well if you’ve read my article that originally mentioned it, or if you’ve seen the amazing in-depth production analysis video by my friend Cecil of Good Bad Flicks, you’d guess this is a much better movie than you’d expect. For one, you have Peter Hyams, a seemingly forgotten director despite having a decent genre film track record. He made the Sean Connery sci-fi cult classic Outland, the surprisingly good sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s perfect 2001: A Space Odyssey (2010: The Year We Make Contact), the quiet crime thriller The Presidio (also starring Sean Connery), two of Jean Claude Van Damme’s best films (Sudden Death and Timecop), the actually really good Arnie apocalyptic action film End of Days, and the cheesy A Sound of Thunder. He’s also respectable in that he’s been the cinematographer for most of his films, showing how he truly envisions his shots, and when you look at a lot of his films, he’s a pretty damn good visual filmmaker. Unfortunately in recent years (The Relic partially, too) he’s made box office failure after failure like The Musketeer, A Sound of Thunder, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, and Enemies Closer (his last film, back in 2013). So if DC or Marvel ever want a really fun genre film for one of their superhero universes: they should get Hyams. Or maybe Blumhouse should get him a call. Because The Relic is a wonderfully visual film that uses light and darkness really well without making it the de-saturated crap we’d have today.
So, we have a really great, but never truly acknowledged director, and a decent, if not underrated cast. We’ve one of my favorite male actors, Tom Sizemore (Strange Days, Natural Born Killers, Heat, Saving Private Ryan, Enemy of the State, the new Twin Peaks), the female lead by Penelope Anne Miller (Carlito’s Way, Along Came a Spider, The Artist) and an actress who fans of NCIS: Los Angeles will recognize- the delightfully charismatic Linda Hunt. They and every other actor give a sense of passion, character, and emotion, as opposed to most modern day performances of looking bored or eating the scenery. They just ARE their characters with all the little quirks, faults, and pieces of humanity. It really adds to the realism and fun of the film.
But as with any monster film, the monster is the star and our Amazonian Devil Chimera God known as the Kothoga is easily one of the most underrated monsters of movie history. A mix of the xenomorph’s stealth kill abilities and the Tyrannosaurus rex from Jurassic Park’s monstrous size and strength, the Kothoga monster is a practical and CGI monster that surprisingly holds up effects, horror, design and individuality-wise. Yes, some of the CGI in this film looks a bit dated comparing it to either of the Jurassic Park film monsters at the time, but the unique design of the creature as a tiger lizard with mandibles that specifically wants to eat your brain is a terrifying realization. And while you don’t see the monster fully for at least an hour, some of the best kills are out of sight (even when they start showing it), but when they let you fully see the monster and the kill, it’s still terrifying. This movie follows a really terrific logic in horror: the idea that there’s a monster should be more terrifying than seeing the monster itself.
For that first hour you could be tricked into believing it was just the idea of a monster scaring us while deaths and scares were caused by something else, which is something most horror films won’t do anymore. Yes, it’s sold as a horror film, but if someone had never heard of it previously, they’d be wondering if there really was a monster or not. Kind of like how Jaws manages to be terrifying because we’re scared of the idea of the shark- not just because we KNOW it’s a shark. If they’d continued with the series, the Kothoga would’ve had to have come back because the original design and possibilities are too interesting to let go.
So we’ve got a great-looking, greatly-acted, scary, fun film with a monster. What’s the downfall? Well, unfortunately the main reason so many turned away from this film after theaters was that on VHS, a bad transfer made some parts of the film too dark to see. On the DVD it’s better, but the Blu-ray is the closest way to see it the way it was intended (because nothing has recreated the original theater release visually). So if you are going to watch this, find the Blu-ray copy for the best experience. Despite the darkness making the film atmospherically more terrifying and moody (and even the DVD lets you see enough), some people decided to make Hyams sound like a madman director by making up the lie, “he only shoots in natural light.” Considering this film was mostly done on sets, that’s impossible, especially with the control he wanted. Movies like The Revenant, Days of Heaven, and Barry Lyndon were shot in natural light by visionary auteur geniuses (people trying to say that makes the, bad filmmakers are just idiots who want corporate schlock), but The Relic wasn’t. Sometimes on locations they mostly used torches whose lights were boosted, but mostly it was a set and light set-up.
The Relic really is one of the forgotten films of a time when horror films were either overrated hits (Scream) or box office bombs to become cult classics (Event Horizon). In terms of The Relic, Sudden Death, Timecop, 2010, Outland and End of Days, I’d say The Relic is Hyams’s best film (Timecop at a close second). It’s a fun, scary, well-made, well-acted film that deserves more credit, and had the balls to end the way it did. I think either a sequel or remake should be done in the spirit of this by another great genre filmmaker who’ll make it their way. Movies based on monster books are starting to become popular again, like next year when we have a $150 million Megalodon movie based off the popular “Meg” series by Steve Alten, starring Jason Statham and from the director of the National Treasure films. And as for Peter Hyams- I hope he comes back one way or another. He’s a truly talented filmmaker, a personal influence and whether it be a low budget monster affair or a major studio blockbuster, I’d love to see him have another chance at a great genre film.